Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


A Rhetorical Examination of the Fatwa: Religion as an Instrument for Power, Prestige, and Political Gains in the Islamic World

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Alberto Gonzalez (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

Lara Lengel (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Christopher Frey (Other)

Fourth Advisor

Ellen Gorsevski (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines the fatwa, an Islamic religious ruling and scholarly opinion on matters of Islamic law, and how fatwa is used as cultural, political and legal rhetoric. It illustrates how rhetoric of ulama¿ [scholars trained in Islam and Islamic law], mutakallimun [theologians], muftis [group of theologians or canon lawyers], qadis [judges], professors, and Sheikh al Islam [the highest-level state religious official], play a role in culture and communication in the Islamic world to gain political, social, cultural, and spiritual control. Specifically, the dissertation examines two of the most renowned fatwas (fatawa) issued in the past three decades: First, the fatwa issued by Ayotallah Ruhollah Khomeini on Salman Rushdie, second, the fatwa issued on Bengali Bangladeshi ex-doctor turned author, Taslima Nasrin, who has lived in exile since 1994. The most important contribution to knowledge this dissertation makes is the analysis of the fatwa issued on Egyptian author and intellectualFaraj Fodah, who was murdered in 1992. Next to no research or media coverage exists in western sources about Fodah’s life, publications, accomplishments, and assassination. Additionally, comprehensive evidence and transcripts from the trial of Fodah’s assassins is presented.

A combination of rhetorical criticism and discourse analysis is applied to examine the rhetoric of fatwas. Also analyzed are global perceptions of fatwas issued on Rushdie and Nasrin, both controversial authors of South Asian heritage, their involvement with the western nations that gave each asylum, and the broader western discourses that have held both authors in esteem and as exemplars of free speech.

The study enhances understanding of how religion is used as an instrument for power, prestige, and political gain in Arab and Muslim majority nations. The study also helps understanding of political and cultural turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa. Finally, the dissertation highlights need for broader understandings of the nature and role of the rhetoric of fatwa in the application of Islamic law, and complex nuances of transnational freedom of speech and human rights.